Sunday, 3 June 2012

Devon Calling is this month's review, a story filmed partly on location in Devon, and written by Chris Wilkes and myself. I have noticed that the camera styles in the 9th Man are more fluid and inventive than those in the Adventures of Stephen Brown episodes that I review. Interesting when you realise that the camera is being handled and directed by pretty much the same people in both series. There's a lot more location work in the former, and this affords more freedom of movement.  

This story kicks off with Jameson arriving in Devon, something I'm not sure we get the purpose of in the teaser sequence. There's lots going on out and about in Devon, and the weather is really good to the cast and crew, it makes me want to hop on a train and go on holiday. 

I hadn't realised until now that the caravan park where Jameson is staying is actually the very same one I stayed at on my honeymoon. (when I say 'I', I wasn't alone). In fact the description of the meeting place for the drugs handover of 'on the beach, in front of the green cafe' is a reference to the green beachfront cafe (I believe it's called Chapples) on Beer beach - which makes an appearance in the background shot while Stephanie Fielon and Stewart James figure out what to do with their ill gotten gains. Small world eh ? 

One thing that did strike both Chris and myself when we were writing this story (much pacing, role playing and tea at my semi subterranean flat in Cosham) is that there's an awful lot of time spent on the phone - hence the title. Perfectly normal thing, but doesn't necessarily make for good viewing. Most of the phone calls cut back and forth to show the person talking, which may be a choice of the editor, however does work better at the end of the episode one, when we stay on Jameson's reaction and hear the other side of the conversation as an overlay. This contributes, it has to be said to a very well executed end to the first episode. The picking up of Jameson's face in the reflection of 'Dealer's sunglasses a really nice touch (where do we get these names from). 

I'm sure there's something you can do on youtube to get it to autoplay your next video after one has finished. Perhaps one of our resident webmasters can point us in the direction of which button to click, and where, as moving seamlessly to the next episode will make for a more enjoyable viewing experience. 

The believability of the action and the sound effect of our fight scenes is something again that doesn't quite gel for me. Sound effects when hitting things, and the choreographing of hitting people (without actually doing so) is something we do have a weakness for. Having said that, the sounds are not over used in this story, as in previous things we've done, so it doesn't enter into slapstick territory (or looking like a recreation of a scene from heavily dubbed 1970s series 'Monkey'). 

Episode two's scene in front of the green cafe with Chelsea and Jake (Stephanie Fielon and Stewart James) we lose a bit of the conversation because they are standing on shingle, and the sound of them pacing about on the stones overpowers their voices. There are ways that could have been compensated for, or dealt with on location, but hey. Hindsight is a wonderful thing.

There's a couple of things I'm not a fan of, the sound effect for Jameson's phone ringtone, doesn't sound like a digitisation of an old style phone ring, it sounds exactly like the ringing of one of those old rotary telephones I love so much, but as a sound effect - it's too clean and perfect. The snap zooms into 'Dealer', and the speeding up, then slowing down during the chase through the streets don't work for me. Worth trying, but no.

The chase scene itself, (if you excuse the fact that James Farmer looks for all the world like he's a middle aged man out for a jog) is a sequence of really good shots, giving us a flavour of local life in a rich variety of locations. Running not just down the usual empty streets we'd normally see in Beacon, but through festivals and carnivals. Really contributed to the atmosphere. 

I'm not quite sure why Kenny (Alec Harkness) is 'skipping' down the back streets only to suddenly tell himself off and that he has work to do. Again some really interestingly shot footage, through the railings as he walks along, but perhaps the rest of the footage could have been trimmed somewhat. Maybe he's happy because he's managed to get away with putting an Apple logo sticker on his Dell laptop. Steve Jobs would be spinning in his grave, if his ground up remains weren't being used to finish the case of the upcoming iPhone 5 that is. True. You read it here first.

When Jameson catches up with the two ne'er do wells of Devon, he pulls a gun on them to convince them to give him back the money. This scene isn't really that plausible, neither the way it's shot, acted or written give it a chance of working. Having said this, it does in no way form a blockage in the audience enjoyment. Although I do wonder if there's any outtakes of Stephanie and James trying to, ahem, make things stick out of their pockets. 

'That there money see, it belongs to the British tax payer'. Really ? I'm so sorry guys. Maybe Chris and I were waiting for the kettle to boil at that point. Mark that down as a shall we ? 

There's some wind (and not from Chris) when shooting outside the warehouse, something obviously causing a bit of a struggle, as the mic makes a sneaky appearance, from below no less, in this shot. It has been a while since Mike appeared in something.

Now I'm a fan for lighting that throws interesting shadows, these and the sounds in the warehouse, of Chelsea and Jake recovering the money, I really like. The 'fridge' shot from inside the case, also good. The 'foley' footsteps of the 'Quake' like gunman's eye view of their killer don't match his walking pace, and the gunshots of their execution sound like a snare drum being hit really hard. There's a great deal more blood from Stephanie, but I think Jake will be okay as he's only gone and spilt Ribena on his t-shirt. This may be because he tried to make Launay drink some.

The camera angles here have pace, and are rather fluid. I think I might have edited some of the shots a bit tighter, but this may be a personal preference thing. After all, some like it tighter than others.

Farmer entering the warehouse and discovering them murdered is all one shot. I've never seen us do this before. Jameson's panic, desperation all really well conveyed by Farmer, and well caught by the cameraman. I have no idea how many takes this took to get right, but hello was it worth it ! The siren sound effect adding to the tension here as the episode draws to a close. That's the second very well executed end of episode cliff hanger in this story. Something we often blow, but in this story has been done brilliantly. In the original script a further twist added here was that Jameson was to find his tag in the warehouse with the bodies. Over complications and the desire to add more twists than a bag of pasta is something I'd readily criticise in other scripts. Whoever's decision it was to remove this unnecessary element, good call. 

Jameson's escape from the warehouse, leads to him nearly being run over by the escaping murdered of the two Devon scallywags. The only thing I wish had been included here, would have been a way to throw some blue flashing light onto the outside of the building, to go with the siren. 

The 'Devon Air' radio spot on the car radio was brilliant, I'm sure I recognise that voice..... It was nicely shot to hide the driver of the car, unless you can identify them from their knees. Another really good ending, with Jameson being left by the roadside, the patience of the driver finally exhausted waiting for his hitchiker to finish making another call. 

Is it me, or does the sound of someone breathing on the footage of Reet (played by my good self) having been strangled make it sound like I'm just taking a nap ? I look surprising peaceful for someone who's been murdered most horribly. Strangled with a stretch of ethernet cable. Always thought the internet would be the death of me. 

Despite being part of the writing partnership that wrote this story, I really enjoyed watching it. It has to be said that's not the emotion I'm normally left with when watching back anything I've had a hand in creating. Always making a further edit in my head. Not the first time I've felt like this from something Chris and I have worked on together, for me that creative partnership works really well. We have differing styles and tend to lean toward differing types of content, but I think this works itself out in a very complimentary way. You'd have to ask Chris for his views on that he might say 'that bastard Sansbury, he's always getting up and flapping his arms about when we write together, and the tea is below my normal standard'. He might not. 

Sure there are things that could have benefited from a little more attention in the editing and sound department, but it's hard to get good sound on locations like a windy, pebbly beach. This is another 9th Man episode that leaves me wanting more. I really feel that I've watched a drama unfolding, and this is after all, what we're after,  no ? 

Now if you don't mind, this middle aged man is going to take himself off for a jog. Yeah. Right. More chance of John Barrowman coming out as a closet heterosexual.
This is the review of 'Girl In The Window' I wrote for May's 'Venturer' Magazine :-

Perhaps it's the anticipation of such a pivotal storyline, the desire to see the departures of Sarah Miatt's Lizzie and Ryan Brady's Stephen Brown given due deference, but my expectations were set rather high. After watching the story via the wonders of You Tube I must ask myself they were unrealistically so.

Chris Wilkes' storyline follows on from the previously developed arcs in the 'specials' series of 2011. The severely injured Stephen Brown instructs sister Lizzie to take him back to Rubart, with the clone Melastone 'liberated' from the laboratory of Donatien (Monster of Lacoste). Unfortunately for Lizzie and Stephen, President Vo has well and truly taken a walk on the dark side, deciding that the rise of his new dictatorship must be built on the destruction of Stephen's reputation (and hopeful death).

Threat, danger, political intrigue, sacrifice, betrayal, an old friend turned enemy, an old enemy returned... all the ingredients you'd need to deliver a fantastic season finale and swansong for both Miatt and Brady.

A once again delayed upload gave chance for any issues discovered in the premier to be tweaked, and polished. It's one level of embarrassment to show off half finished work to the hard working members of the Beacon fraternity, all together another to then share it with the rest of the world. Though why you would want to do either, beats me.

So, with such an important story (like others in the series' history), there's a real chance to showcase just exactly what Beacon is capable of. And demonstrate it certainly does.

Normally I work through my notes in a chronological format, and write my review logically working through the episodes as they appear online. This time, I thought I would try something different and focus on the separate elements of the show.

The writing, Chris has written more scripts for Stephen Brown than the Salvation Army dishes out hot dinners. Despite the (I think intended) groan-worthy nature of some of the jokes, and using the first lines spoken by Colin Baker as The Doctor after regenerating from Peter Davison, (twice as it happens) I have to take my hat off to him. There's lots going on, but not confusingly so from a scripting perspective. I'll also forgive the clunky use of the word 'PDA', which was just as clunky a word in 1990 when they were all the rage amongst the uber organised super geeks as the devices themselves.

He again 'borrows' from that famous time-travelling scifi show with a scene where Vo taps rhythmically on a desk and then gasses his cabinet. The script is so important in this scene, Ian's highlighted copy is actually centre of the shot at one point.

The sound in this story has a very annoying habit of changing levels and quality when flicking back and forth between President Vo (Ian Hamer) and Number One (Kathryn Cairns). When Vo tries to bully Death, he stands up and promptly loses synchronisation between image and sound. That isn't the soundman's fault though, that one lays squarely in the hands of the editor.

It is also the editor that is to blame for the downright disruptive an at times, inappropriate background music.

The fist thing you notice when watching this episode is that the image isn't formatted properly into the frame on the website. This leaves us with a solid black border all the way around the screen. The picture, when it's live action is normally treated to an artsy shaky feel. This can be very effective, and give an 'on the fly' edge to the action. It works well when done consistently and when not overused. Sadly we're left with a fair bit of footage that appears was shot by Michael J Fox. It's an effect not always applied either, so confuses the eye as to what the significance is of its use. It may have been nothing more than a conversation of... 'oh, they do this in Battlestar Galactica, and it looks really cool.. I think we should do that...and while we're at it, let's have their music too...'

The initial shots onboard the Venturer appear to have been put through the instagram app on an iphone. It's quiet a nice rosy-glow effect, I just cannot see what it adds or why it is used.

The computer graphics in this story leap from utterly fantastic to, the other end of the spectrum. The establishing shot of the Presidential Offices is overused, and in exactly the same way too. It's a very nice image, we just see it too much. The green-screen shots are very effective and well used, but are let down when the background image is not that inspiring. The Venturer external shots give the ship a plasticky shine, when it comes into land it actually looks a little like it was a toy.

The postproduction visual effects suffer from the same inconsistency, fantastic holographic control screen images, that are well designed and well laid out, that are not in every shot of the same scene. Missing forcefields and control panels spoil Stephen's rescue of Lizzie as there's nothing preventing her from just walking out anyway. When Vo is trapped behind another invisible forcefield and firing his gun at Lizze, there is no effect of the shots and the footage does not tell the story of how or why Lizzie is left in an area of the ship where she is exposed to space when the escape pod departs with the bemused Stephen Brown in the clone body (Stewart James). The image of receding escape pod appears cartoon-like. I would invite you to take a look at some of the 'cutting edge' special effects used in Blakes 7 in 1979 and compare.
The numerous sets and locations are both good and not so good. The cabinet meeting for example makes no attempt to dress the set at all. It does have to be said that the setting fire of the Venturer set was especially effective.

The effect of these failings is to seriously detract from Lizzie's death scene. A series of shots that fail to tell the story is nothing new, and is either down to a gap in planning by the director or some sort of checking and review of work by the editor.

If the delayed uploaded version has resolved previous premier night issues, I cannot imagine what that must have looked like. After my really high expectations I am left feeling very bad for the underplayed passing of Sarah and Ryan's roles after so many fantastic performances, not as much for the actors themselves, but also from the disappointment of the rather missed opportunity to take a brilliant story idea and 'knock it out of the park'. You don't get a second chance to make a last impression after all.

This is the review that I submitted for April 2012's edition of 'Venturer' :-

Our journey along the series of The Ninth Man continues with the third story, Ties That Bind Us. After the previous episodes I have to say I was rather looking forward to watching this, and finding out what happens to Kenny, Robert, Michelle and Lindsay.
We get off to a good start, returning as we do to the place where the previous episode left off with my good self as Reet and Chris Lovin (Ben Johnson) leaving Kenny Cooper (Alec Harkness) tied up, while we go off to engage in some intimidation. It had been raining, making my '.. and it was turning out to be such a nice day' line rather fitting. If it's one thing you can rely on in the UK, it's that at some point, it will rain.
I have to say I'm less than convinced by the 'sherbet dip' scene. Maybe I'm too used to seeing Tim playing comical characters, but I was expecting a play to the camera and some jazz hands at any moment!
The heavy boys, in the form of Ben Johnson and Will Gammon, carrying their implausibly long poles set on Jameson and Michelle, hitting the latter (Sarah Miatt) around the face with a pipe. This confrontation is lacking the pace and menace of previous such scenes in the series. James' reaction is rather flat for someone who's just seen his sister- in-law beaten round the head with a
metal pipe. Was it rehearsal, or lack of it, that killed the confidence in execution of this scene?
Fight scenes are, by their nature complicated beasts, you want to get the point across, but you also don't (really) want the actors to get hurt. There are several examples in the story of why such scenes take place, but they must be choreographed skilfully, and rehearsed over and over, to take the best of the situation, and get the best shot.
Aside from the punch sounds which I have always detested, the sound while Will and Ben walk through the warehouse is distracting. It's a well shot piece though, I do like the wandering through a poorly lit warehouse. It's not always clear
however how or why one scene links to another, which surprises me as this story was written by Jordan Howard, the architect of the series. It doesn't make sense why Will's character decides to finish the job of bludgeoning the boxer to death, but it is Ben's character, that reveals this to Jameson.

10There's a bit of me that thinks that filming Ben driving, whilst on the phone, in what I can assume is his works van is not a brilliant idea, but I think my objections aren't to do with the production. Still, nice bit of advertising for them.
The previously unconvincing attack on Sarah's character leaves an equally unconvincing lack of injury to her face. I'm pretty sure that if I was hit round the face with a six foot metal pipe I would have some sort of war wound to show for it, and It doesn't make sense why she is let go. Now, I know about other elements of the series that I have yet to review, and that there may be explanations for all these things at a later date, but rather than come off intriguing and mysterious, it just judders and jars and breaks up the previously excellent story telling I've seen in the other episodes.
I did really think though, that after chucking Sarah out of the van, that she was going to get run over as Ben reversed right next to her, but this doesn't happen. She just gets up and hobbles off.
I did like the filming of Ben through the reflection in the mirror, but again the scene felt like we were missing a step. Reet is waiting for a call, presumably from Chris (Ben Johnson)... although Reet is the one that makes the call in the end, while Chris has a weirdly cosy chat in the front of the van with Jameson. Maybe despite the duct-tape on his mouth Jameson was able to call 'shotgun'? It also doesn't make
sense either for Reet to shout at Kenny Cooper to 'get out of his place' while he's tied to a chair.
I'd forgotten that before all of this, Lindsay had been kidnapped, so when Michelle (Sarah Miatt) tells James Johnson (John Hampton) that she's just 'took off' it makes even less sense than him saying to
call the police, or that he already has, when he did and had been told there was nothing the police could do. As if things weren't confusing enough!
I have to say that Kenny's line 'the police saw him this morning, and the bits that they found were definitely not fine...' did make me laugh, but mostly the emotions I am left with after watching this story are disappointment, and confusion. The script, or at least the editing, doesn't gel together and create the smooth seamless story that I'd become accustomed to. The acting doesn't really show up any shining performances, though if anyone had it, it was Harkness. Most of the other 'action', if you can call it that was unconvincing and poorly conveyed from a directing and acting point of view. I really do hope that the next story shows a return to the excellent form I love so much.